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South African diplomacy: Challenges as opportunities

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Under President Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa is seeking to regain the respect and authority it held in its early years of democracy. Its diplomacy is undertaking creative avenues to recapture influence and steer public persuasion, especially regarding Africa. Its embrace of challenges as opportunities suggests strategic urgency. 

In early September a wave of violence spilled over the streets of South Africa’s Gauteng province. In many reported cases the targets of the mob were small businesses owned by foreign, mainly African, nationals. The incidents quickly became labelled as xenophobia and follow similar intermittent incidents over the last decade which have tarnished South Africa’s image and influence, especially in Africa. This episode has been the first of its kind under the Presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa. Government’s response to the situation presents several insights that guide understanding of South Africa’s renewed approach to international diplomacy, notably regarding Africa.

A tarnished image

The reasons for the recent violence are complex and diverse. As in previous episodes, legitimate disquiet surrounding national concerns became hijacked by vigilantes; combustible national conditions sparked. These events played out in the days leading up to the World Economic Forum Africa. The Cape Town-based event attracts influential African and international guests. It is a carefully constructed South African exhibition to attract and persuade investor confidence. Instead of curating an appealing image, South Africa was smeared in the press and by African dignitaries. Nigeria publicly rebuked South Africa and boycotted the event. In supposed retaliation, a number of South African franchises in Nigeria were looted. While there was no proof that Nigerians were specifically targetted, Abuja retorted with unprecedented threats, dramatically escalating tensions between Africa’s two largest economies. Early signs of a continental challenge for supremacy are surfacing. Nigeria’s Foreign Minister warned that it “will take definitive measures to ensure safety and protection of her citizens…we are hoping to see the possibility of sending some security agents”. Hundreds of Nigerian citizens were repatriated from South Africa through the efforts of local airline, Air Peace.

Regaining control

Pretoria’s response to domestic and continental animosity has been instructive. After the events in Gauteng, Pretoria has set out to appropriate attention through a charm offensive aimed at regaining control of the national narrative. Its international diplomacy has taken on the frank, proactive approach that is proving to be symptomatic of the new government. It has spoken out against criminality and violence; Ramaphosa has insisted that “South Africans are not xenophobic, not against nationals from other countries, we welcome people from other countries”. Instead, Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, has said that the media has misrepresented the violence as xenophobic and “is very keen to keep this impression alive”. Pandor’s indictment against the media moves to close the forensic argument by instructively detailing the programmes that the government is implementing to address lawlessness and illegal migration. Significantly, the transformation here is from reacting to leading; through specifics, government takes authoritative control over the shaping of the story.

Pandor used her recent address to the United Nations General Assembly to atypically atone for domestic actions. Pandor made South Africa’s repudiation of intolerance the focus of her speech. She berated “the incidents of violence and looting… (as)regrettable and shameful for a nation with such as proud history of struggle and international solidarity support. The government of South Africa strongly condemned these actions and is working harder to insuring we address the security lapses…South Africa has an unwavering commitment to our continent, Africa”. This confession of guilt suggests Pretoria’s urgency to win over Africa. The rejection of intolerance forms part of a positive message that attracts continental endorsement.

Steering the story

Both Ramaphosa and Pandor recognize the breakdown in law and order as an opportunity to lead. This is a key approach that the new government has adopted. Instead of averting tensions, it has sought to shape perceptions. A day after water cannons and stun grenades dispersed crowds protesting against criminality and Gender-Based Violence outside the World Economic Forum Africa, Ramaphosa called off his address to the Forum to speak to the protesters as they gathered outside Parliament. His symbolic performance did not simply reject the Forum. It proved his authority and sense of urgency. He allayed the protesters, declaring ‘enough is enough’, a key slogan of the crowd. That evening, on national television, he proposed several interventions and called for a rare special sitting of both houses of Parliament to debate the issues in their seriousness. Throughout his communications, Ramaphosa employs ethos and pathos appeals, seizing opportunities for persuasion. At the funeral of controversial former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, Ramaphosa seemingly changed his speech after being booed by the audience. Referring to the violence directed at foreign nationals, some of whom were Zimbabwean, he offered “a national apology…on behalf of the people of South Africa for what has happened over the last few weeks”. After expressing his remorse the crowd’s jeers turned to cheers.

Strategic positioning

Ramaphosa’s government is positioning itself favourably in order to advance its public diplomacy, especially on the continent. Following the attacks on African nationals, Ramaphosa announced his dispatch of high ranking envoys to a number of African countries. Pretoria’s unprecedented charge to promote social cohesion and perform Pan-Africanism is proving fortuitous. The Presidency has reported that leaders of the states visited by the envoys have relayed their “expressed appreciation” and their “concern” of the “irresponsible use of social media by certain individuals to create confusion and tension in the public mind”. Ramaphosa further announced his invitation of former Presidents, Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique to lead a fact-finding mission into the episode and to make recommendations to prevent future incidents. This approach extends to South Africa’s foreign policy a tested tactic of Ramaphosa, to lead after bringing a diverse group of stakeholders around the same table. This consensus-driven approach masters a situation, affords legitimacy to practice and instructs future action.

South Africa’s shuttle diplomacy to dispel negative African perceptions forms a foundational part of the new government’s strategy. According to Minister Pandor, South Africa’s foreign policy “will reiterate the centrality of the African continent…(and) focus increasingly on economic diplomacy”. In his special sitting of Parliament, Ramaphosa affirmed solidarity with the continent. He claimed:“our fortunes are linked to those of our fellow African nations…rather than retreating into a laager, we must embrace African integration and the benefits it will bring”. This charge not simply rejects animosity, it effectively drives engagement and concomitant benefits. This is confirmed by the president’s very next comment addressing the recently signed African Continental Free Trade Agreement. The Agreement, says Ramaphosa: “will fundamentally reshape the economies of our continent, and we need to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that will be created”. Pandor’s address to the General Assembly further stressed the significance of the Agreement: “it will unleash Africa’s economic potential and consolidate its position as a new frontier of new economic growth and development”.

South Africa’s public diplomacy charge takes place at a time of strategic opportunity. It currently serves its first of two years as a non-permanent member to the United Nations Security Council. Here it insists that it represents the entire continent and the African Union. In 2020, for the first time since 2003, South Africa will also assume the chair the African Union. Its displays in 2019 are strategically laying the foundation for its advance, in 2020 and beyond.

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Africa

Scientific and trade cooperation between China and Africa

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China was crumbling into misery, degradation and despair, in the middle of that 109-year period (1840-1949) known as the era of semi-wild and semi-colonial China. As early as 1840, the year of the Opium War, declared by Britain on China to bring in the drugs that the Chinese refused, China’s history had been one of rapid ruin.

The ruin was not only material, caused by the vampirism of colonial power that exploited the Middle Empire with weapons, forcing it to accept unjust treaties, burning Beijing palaces, beating and massacring the people with the British Sikh policemen, claiming huge “compensation payments” for wars waged against it. It was also spiritual ruin. None of the old values and traditions could curb that wave of destruction.

However, over the last seventy years, things have changed and the main contradiction between the pious sermons of Western democracy and the simultaneous indiscriminate exploitation of China has disappeared with the expulsion of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek). It has disappeared in all fields.

On December 6, 2019, during the 5th South Africa Science Forum (Pretoria, December 4-6, 2019), Chinese Ambassador Lin Songtian was invited to participate in the Forum parallel workshop,”China-Africa Scientific and Technological Cooperation: Impact and Prospects”, and delivered the opening speech. The major media widely and proactively reported the diplomat’s words, claiming that China’s investment in Africa was second to none.

Ambassador Lin Songtian said that the Belt & Road Initiative proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping had effectively promoted Africa’s development. China’s cooperation with Africa has always followed the principle of truthfulness and honesty, justice and mutual benefit. China has always been committed to achieving win-win cooperation and joint development with Africa. This stands in stark contrast to Western countries that pursue their own interests first and not those of equal and mutual benefit.

The United States, Japan and the EU are not involved in every large-scale infrastructure. Only China has invested and provided massive amounts of funds. Ethiopia, for example – once one of the poorest countries on the African continent – has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world after over ten years of development.

Several well-known scientists from the South African Republic participated in the Forum, maintaining that China – also a developing country – fully understands Africa’s needs and its willingness to open the door to cooperation in the field of scientific and technological innovation on an encouraging basis.

The joint scientific research conducted by China and Africa is able to strongly promote the development of the African continent. Africa has missed the first three industrial revolutions and cannot miss the fourth. China has many useful experience gained with Africa to teach.

If China can create scientific and technological companies for training African entrepreneurs, the Black Continent will certainly be able to offer valuable candidates; with the hope that Africa will also achieve scientific, technological and managerial independence.

Some scholars have also pointed out that the survey conducted by Afrobarometer has shown that because China’s aid and investment in Africa have promoted the building of infrastructure, Chinese products are high-quality and cheap, and that 63% of Africans believe that China has a positive influence on Africa. 15% of Africans have a negative attitude towards China because they know very little about it and are influenced by irresponsible news from the former colonial media criticising the People’s Republic of China.

The imperialist drug dealers, the exploitative colonialists and the pimps of the past, in new guises, complain about the lack of democracy, only because they have seen their centuries-old banquetat the expense of the Chinese people precluded.

At the same time, Africa, as China’s economic and trade partner, has brought huge mutual benefits. Africa has the 53 most important minerals on the planet and some rare strategic resources, but the rate of development and use of arable land is lower than 30%. Although China is the world’s richest country for mineral resources, its per capita share is less than half of the world’s level. Hence, together with the regular distribution of mineral resources, it is also necessary to establish greater China-Africa relations to broaden the trade channels for these resources.

Although the African market has a high rate of return, it also has a certain degree of risk, which requires foreign companies to have better conditions to withstand fluctuations in the African market.

The benefits of China’s investment in Africa are indisputable. Nevertheless, the Belt & Road Initiative has always been questioned by Western countries.

Over and above the politically correct dispute over the Asian country’s lack of democracy, the main controversy has focused opportunistically on whether China has increased its risks of debt to recipient countries and whether these projects have adequate environmental protection plans.

Some Western theories argue that China uses “debt trap diplomacy”, a means of providing a large amount of loans that beneficiaries cannot repay, so as to influence developing countries’ policies.

However, in reality, the external debt profile of the beneficiary countries is very varied. Before Africa was hit by the Covid-19 epidemic, the average debt of the ten largest beneficiary countries was 36.5% of China’s total income, close to 37.2% of the rest of Africa. Moreover, the situation in each country is different: these ten countries include high debtors such as Zambia and other countries with very low debt such as Angola, Kenya and Nigeria.

The loan initiative has always been in the hands of African countries which – when the funds and blackmail of multinational financial institutions do not meet their needs – have the right to rely on China to build the necessary infrastructure.

Therefore, to a certain extent, the high demand for loans is adapted to the development needs of African countries, which would remain blocked by the inertia of the West and its financial institutions.

At present, the method for financing the building of infrastructure is relatively simple. In general, governments obtain preferential loans from the Export-Import Bank of China or the China Development Bank, with the hiring of Chinese building contractors.

Furthermore, the Chinese government and private companies are paying increasing attention to environmental protection. For example, in April 2019 the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment published Guidelines on the promotion of works and a cooperation plan for environmental protection.

China has understood the importance of the eco-environmental issue in transforming the green economy and promoting the sustainable development goals developed by the United Nations, and has further improved and implemented a range of risk prevention policies and measures.

The Chinese government is also making greater efforts to regulate private companies’ behaviours. The number of these companies is much higher than reported by the statistics of the Ministry of Commerce and almost all of them use their own capital. If the Chinese government can provide more funding channels for private companies, it will have more say in encouraging private companies to pay attention to social responsibility.

According to the International Energy Agency’s report, in 2019 almost 70% of the world’s energy-deficient population lived in Africa and energy development is a huge driving force for economic growth. This means that the energy market will become an important area of China-Africa economic cooperation.

In a situation in which sustainable development has become a global trend, China-Africa economic cooperation shall inevitably adapt: from traditional energy extraction to alternative energy development; from large loans to the development of human capital. The focus on sustainability will not only lead to short-term contractual relations, but also to long-term partnership.

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‘Full scale’ humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia’s Tigray

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Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

A “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is unfolding as thousands of refugees flee ongoing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region each day to seek safety in eastern Sudan, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported on Tuesday. 

More than 27,000 have now crossed into Sudan through crossing points in Kassala and Gedaref states, as well as a new location further south at Aderafi, where Ethiopian refugees started crossing over the weekend, according to UNHCR

The scale of the influx is the worst that part of the country has seen in over 20 years, according to the agency. 

“Women, men and children have been crossing the border at the rate of 4,000 per day since 10 November, rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground,” said Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesperson, briefing reporters in Geneva. 

“Refugees fleeing the fighting continue to arrive exhausted from the long trek to safety, with few belongings”, he added. 

According to news reports, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has indicated the military operation that was launched in response to the reported occupation of a Government military base by Tigrayan forces nearly two weeks ago, would continue, although he said it was now in its “final phase”.  

‘Needs continue to grow’ 

UN agencies, along with relief partners have ramped up assistance – delivering food rations, hot meals and clean water, as well as setting up latrines and temporary shelters. They are also supporting the Sudanese Government in its response. But the needs continue to grow.  

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is also supporting other humanitarian workers in its response, providing fuel for vehicles and generators in remote locations. The UN Humanitarian Air Service, managed by WFP, has also increased flights from three times per week to daily flights for aid workers. 

Since Saturday, UNHCR has relocated 2,500 refugees from the border to Um Raquba settlement site, in eastern Sudan. There is however, a “critical need” to identify more sites so that refugees can be relocated away from the border and can access assistance and services, said Mr. Baloch. 

UNHCR has also issued an emergency fundraising appeal, through which people can help provide urgent, lifesaving assistance to refugees. Click here to make a donation

‘On standby’ in Tigray 

Meanwhile in the Tigray region of Ethiopia itself, lack of electricity, telecommunications, fuel and cash, continue to severely hamper any humanitarian response, the UNHCR spokesperson said.  

“After nearly two weeks of conflict, reports of larger numbers of internally displaced grow daily, while the lack of access to those in need, coupled with the inability to move in goods to the region, remain major impediments to providing assistance,” he said. 

UNHCR and partners are on standby to provide assistance to the displaced in Tigray, including basic items, when access and security allow. 

The conflict is also a major ongoing concern for the Eritrean refugee population of nearly 100,000 in Tigray, who are reliant on assistance from UNHCR and partners.  

“Potential for further displacement of refugees inside the country is increasingly a real possibility … The humanitarian situation as result of this crisis is growing rapidly” he warned, reiterating UNCHR’s call for peace and urge all parties to respect the safety and security for all civilians in Tigray.

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Russia to Build Naval Facility in Sudan

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Emerging from the first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi a year ago, Russia will make one huge stride by establishing a naval facility in Sudan. This marks its maritime security presence in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea region. Sharing a northern border with Egypt, Sudan is located on the same strategic coastline along the Red Sea.

According to the executive order, the published document says “the proposal from the government of the Russian Federation to sign an agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Sudan on creating a facility of the Navy of the Russian Federation in the territory of the Republic of Sudan be adopted.”

It also authorizes “the Defense Ministry of Russia to sign the aforementioned agreement on behalf of the Russian Federation.” The document stipulates that a maximum of four warships may stay at the naval logistics base, including “naval ships with the nuclear propulsion system on condition of observing nuclear and environmental safety norms.”

Earlier, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin approved the draft agreement on establishing a naval logistics base in Sudan and gave instructions to submit the proposal to the president for signing. The draft agreement on the naval logistics facility was submitted by Russia’s Defense Ministry, approved by the Foreign Ministry, the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee of Russia and preliminary agreed with the Sudanese side.

As the draft agreement says, the Russian Navy’s logistics facility in Sudan “meets the goals of maintaining peace and stability in the region, is defensive and is not aimed against other countries.”

The signing of the document by the Russia president shows the positive results of negotiations, the possibility of constructing a naval base in the region, over the years with African countries along the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean.

During a visit by then-President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir to Moscow in November 2017, agreements were reached on Russia’s assistance in modernizing the Sudanese armed forces. Khartoum also said at the time it was interested in discussing the issue of using Red Sea bases with Moscow.

On the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Russia had a naval base in Somalia during the Soviet days. Currently, Djibouti hosts Chinese and American naval bases. China’s military base in Djibouti was set up to support five mission areas. India is another Asian nation that has increased its naval presence in Africa. In order to protect its commercial sea-lanes from piracy, it has established a network of military facilities across the Indian Ocean.

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